Writer: Michelle Magorian
Adapter: David Wood
Director: Angus Jackson
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
“Boy ain’t had a lot of lovin’” is a line that rings out in David Woods’ adaptation of Michelle Morgan’s novel Goodnight Mister Tom. Winner of an Olivier Award in 2011 and a run in London’s West End over Christmas and into the New Year, this tear jerker of a family play begins its national tour at The Opera House in Manchester.
William Beech (played in this performance by Alex Taylor-McDowall) is a London evacuee at the start of the Second World War placed in Dorset with the reluctant and reclusive villager Tom Oakley (David Troughton). Arriving as a scared rabbit, he vomits on arrival, automatically sleeps under the bed rather than on it and is covered with bruises. It is obvious William has a dark past but we also come to learn much of Mister Tom’s journey also.
Adapted from Michelle Magorian’s 1991 novel (later adapted into a 1998 TV film starring John Thaw) this stage adaptation is obviously in safe hands with experienced children’s theatre adapter David Wood. Veteran of countless children’s plays, including many Roald Dahl adaptations, this story is comparable to that of The BFG: two misfits, cross-generational, connecting, sharing, learning, and eventually saving one another. The heart of this beautiful story is the question of who is mending who and who is this evacuation most beneficial for?
With such a sensitive play it is a shame that the production must try to fill a venue such as The Opera House. As good as the design, acting and direction as a whole there is always an intimacy lost in playing such a large space. That said, I am grateful that this show has been programmed and to the actors and production crew who managed to fill such a large theatre with aplomb. Full credit must be paid to the Alex Taylor-McDowall playing the young William Beech as well as Oliver Loades playing Zach during its run in Manchester. Over the last few years, especially with the success of Billy Elliot, theatre producers have learnt that shows can be carried by extremely young talent – and this is no exception. As Mister Tom, David Troughton has all the warmth of a younger Bernard Cribbins and we know we are in wholesome hands as he nurtures the terrified young boy.
With the first half brightly lit, we witness the young boy settle into his new surroundings. Beginning at a gentle pace William is introduced to the village and, despite pre-wartime, everything seems to be an idyllic 1940s English setting. William even makes best friends with Tom’s collie, Sammy – beautifully puppeteered by Elisa de Grey. Woods allows us a few ‘leaks’ from the terrible London he has left behind and the mother that packed him off to the countryside with a belt to be beaten with. With the arrival of a telegram recalling him back to the Capital (with ominous and portending shadows looming behind the actors) we know that we are in for a tough second half.
This is a play that truly is cross-generational. What is admirable about Woods’ script is that it plays up to any children watching and asks them to step up to the mark. It is recommended for ages 8+ as it deals with some fairly tough subject matter in places. It is also a lesson in how the war affected all parts of the country and not just those sheltering from the bombing in London.
A story of adoption, love, mending, connection and loneliness this is a play that, despite its complexities, can speak to a mix of generations. Although at times it can feel a little melodramatic and sentimental, it hits hard at the heart-strings of its audience. This is a wonderful theatre experience for any parent wanting to share the power of live theatre.
Runs at The Opera House until 27th February